International Women's Day: We Can Do Better Than This!

06/03/2015 10:32 | Updated 20 May 2015

Mother and daughter

This year, I have written quite a bit about International Women's Day for the national press and was fortunate to interview many incredible, high-profile women about why they thought the day was important and what they are doing to mark it.

It served as a reminder of just how many amazing women we have on tap as role models for our daughters. I couldn't wait to tell my own daughter about Claire Lomas, the paraplegic British campaigner, fundraiser and former event rider.

I also told her about EasyJet's CEO Carolyn McCall, politician Hazel Blears and Dame Kelly Holmes, who talked about her campaign #DoubleGold, which focuses on striving to achieve something, then going that bit further and seeing if you can achieve more than you thought possible. "Everyone has a double gold in them," she told me.

Imagine my surprise, then, when new research this week from Yahoo showed that the woman who has attracted the most online searches in the last 12 months is Kate Middleton. Kate Middleton, I ask you! She wouldn't even be famous, had she not married a royal.

As if that's not depressing enough, in second place is Kim Kardashian, whilst other names in the list include Katie Price and Cheryl Cole.

I realise that an online search doesn't automatically equate to admiration for a person or aspiring to be like them – it can be for exactly the opposite reason. But as it stands, the likes of Kate Middleton and Kim Kardashian are the women whose lives are being examined the most, when there are so many extraordinary and fantastic women whose accomplishments could teach girls so much more.

Come on, people – and especially parents. If these are the high-profile women being talked about and researched the most, what message is that giving our daughters? And, for that matter, our sons. Boys need to grow up thinking that women are about more than this too.

Why isn't Malala Yousafzai in this list? And what about Caitlin Moran and Francesca Martinez?

Instead, there's Susanna Reid, Jennifer Lawrence, Ariana Grande, Kelly Brook and Holly Willoughby.

I'm not saying these women's lives are second-rate or that they haven't achieved things they should be proud of. I'm just saying it's disappointing that the list is exclusively made up entirely of stereotypically beautiful women in the entertainment industry and wives or relations of other famous people. I mean, has the hyper-feminine singer Cheryl Cole ever done anything particularly inspirational? Even when you speak to teenage girls about her status as a role model, they seem a bit bemused.

Girls and young women often talk about the self-doubt that holds them back, the voice at their shoulder saying you aren't really good enough. "Don't think of asking for a rise, a promotion," says that voice all too often when they enter the world of work. Good role models across different areas of life set positive examples for youngsters and help counter negative influences they encounter during adolescence, so that this voice is fainter or, better still, non-existent.

A growing body of research confirms that strong same-sex role models are particularly important for young women. In one study at the University of Toronto, male and female students were all given a fictional newspaper article about someone who had succeeded in their chosen field. While some read about a woman, others read about a man. After finishing the article, the female students who had read about the woman rated themselves more highly than those who had read about the man. There was no such split among the male students.

In schools, all subjects provide opportunities to source role models, from literary heroes and heroines to scientific pioneers. But we need strong role models to be talked about in our home lives too.

I know there's nothing new about teenagers viewing movie stars, singers and TV actors as role models. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest our celebrity-obsessed culture has got worse. And when you think back to the 80s and 90s, it's easier to find examples of women in the public eye who were savvy and talented and, perhaps most crucially, didn't seem to have this burning need to appeal to men in the way that today's celebrities do: Roseanne Barr, Martina Navratilova, Floella Benjamin, Cyndi Lauper, Oprah Winfrey.


Too much of today's female celebrities' inane chatter and focus on looking pretty reinforces the age-old premise that women must be beautiful if they are to lead happy lives, and that what we care about, above all else, is how to have flawless skin and stick-thin bodies. ​


So concerning is the lack of positive role models for girls that their future prospects are being severely damaged, according to one study by Girlguiding UK. The study of girls aged between seven and 21 revealed that many use reality television and celebrities as a blueprint for how they should live their lives.

Girlguiding UK identified a link between the narrow range of role models and limited future aspirations. Tracey Murray, head of guiding development, said that the "glitzy champagne lifestyle" of some celebrities is giving girls an unrealistic view on what life is really like.

"The type of role models that they were talking to us about tended to come from the world of TV and rich and famous celebrities, rather than the broader range of role models, like women who work in business, sport and other walks of life," she said.

I know it's not easy for parents. As Kira Cochrane has written in the Guardian, we are living in an odd, unsettling culture, with strong women eerily absent from the public eye. "It can feel as if we are bequeathing young girls – those who arguably need role models the most – a barren landscape. As women have grown more socially powerful, it seems that the wider culture is pumping out images intended to put us back in our place," she wrote.

Then there's the fact that many strong women find the idea of being a role-model old-fashioned and fogeyish. In 1998, when the actor Emma Thompson was put on a government list of female role models, she memorably said her "immediate response was an overwhelming desire to go out and score a load of cocaine."

Of course, role models don't have to be in the public eye at all. "My mother" is usually the top result when girls are asked for their primary role model. All the more reason, then, for mums to take stock this International Women's Day and think about the kinds of women we want our daughters to aspire to so that ultimately, they can grow up to feel more confident and so that we can all work towards finally changing our male-dominated culture in which men make up the vast majority of MPs and heads of business, as well as overshadowing women in entire careers such as those in science and engineering.

Strong role models are vital to showing girls and young women that they are capable of achieving great things and will ultimately benefit us all.

Do you agree? Who are your female role models?

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